In a generic fixture in 1997, Des Linton leapt into the air when an opposition player made a dangerous challenge. Despite being hurt, the Peterborough United defender carried on, believing what had happened was not severe.
However, reality soon struck. Linton realised that he was not okay. He could feel the consistent pain and needed an operation that summer to repair the damage.
“It was the erosion of the joints,” he tells The Football Pink. “I didn’t have much cartilage in there. My bones were rubbing on bones while I was running. All the impact was making it worse and worse.”
The type of injury was devastating to Linton. His history of cartilage injuries had corroded the strength in his knees already and this injury had made it worse. “From that point onwards, that is where the problems started. I never ever was fully fit or fully functional.”
Additionally, Linton had to go through the rehabilitation process without an effective recovery programme.
“It was a horrible time. You want to play, but your body is letting you down. Peterborough was the worst place to be for me because they didn’t have a proper physio. I wasn’t getting proper treatment and rehab. I was trying to get myself fit. What you do is, you force it. I just said I was fit and started playing again too.”
One aspect of injuries that can be regularly missed is the psychological toll they can have. Instead, ardent fans and pundits typically rush to observe the detriments to physical performance. Perhaps because psychology is locked away in privacy, it is difficult to analyse the effects. For Linton, the impact on his mental strength was just as challenging as recovering physically.
“When you are injured, you are no good to the manager. You are out on your own. There was no support. It was not a ‘lovely, lovely’ environment.”
“You are not alienated but you are. Your day is different. You have to come in earlier to do your physio and you are doing your rehab in separate groups. Life goes on. That first-team bubble keeps going on in their area. You are not a part of it until you can get yourself back in there. This takes time. If you get a really serious injury, then it could be months.”
“Your mood swings are different. You might get left out. You get a group that are doing things and finishing training at a certain time and you are not. Your mates are going off and doing things. You feel like you are missing out.”
“It affects your whole world within football and outside of it. The quicker you can get yourself fit, the better. When you keep on getting recurrences, it is like ‘oh no, back into that again’.”
“Not only that, but rehab is also quite hard. Depending on what injury you have, the process to get it fit or to strengthen the muscles is severe. It is like doing a mini pre-season. It is not a good place to be.”
Linton had a year and a half of non-major issues and managed his fitness with Peterborough and Swindon Town on loan. In 1999, there was a new opportunity. His former Luton Town teammate David Preece got him a trial with Division Two Cambridge United. Linton impressed them and he signed.
Then his knee flared up again. Another operation followed. He started rehab in September, and he was stunningly fit by Christmas. After two reserve fixtures in the new millennia, a similar issue returned.
This time the physio pulled him aside. They passed on the surgeon notes. The surgeon said Linton’s injuries meant he could not cope with the demands of professional football. There and then, aged just 30-years-old, Des Linton was forced to retire.
Contending with retirement
Linton’s life had always revolved around football. Growing up in Birmingham, he adopted Aston Villa as his team. His talents grew in Sunday League and he succeeded in Leicester City’s Youth Training Scheme (YTS) around the turn of the decade.
His Leicester spell was short but memorable. Former Luton Town stalwart Ricky Hill, who was in the tail-end of his career, took it upon himself to support Linton.
However, it was Hill’s former team who gave the 20-year-old the platform to flourish for six-years. Ex-Leicester manager David Pleat brought him to the Hatters in 1991. Overall, Linton’s career spanned a decade which included 178 appearances and four goals.
So naturally, when he received the news, a mental transition was needed for Linton to adjust. Except, he didn’t. Linton concealed his grief because he felt the weight of other life priorities.
“I parked it. I got told this news in January and that June I was getting married. I just thought ‘what am I going to do?’ I need to get a job. I went looking and got a sales job by March.”
“I took myself away from football. Because I couldn’t play it, I didn’t want to be around it. People asked why I didn’t coach. I didn’t want to be around that environment where one minute I was playing and the next I am coaching. I needed to getaway.”
“I thought I had to get on with life. I can’t sulk. Even though they said I could play football, I didn’t kick a ball. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t go near it. I just left it.”
When Linton was about to move onto a new job two years on from his retirement, he sat down and the distress hit him. He had become overwhelmed because he never digested the news properly. It sparked a change. Linton recognised he needed to do something; to give himself the proper time to adjust to his new life.
“I didn’t work for a while. I thought I’d give myself a break because it was me trying to mend. Time is a great healer.”
His time away worked. The door Linton shut on football began to slowly reopen. It served to be the biggest rehabilitator.
“I got back into it with a kick about with people. I know my limits. I can still have a run around, and a kick about. I coach kids now. That has been my medicine – coaching and being around it. I show myself that I was half-decent at one point.”
Managing the pressure
Des Linton’s journey from bottling-up grief to calming conciliation shows the importance of understanding how and when to control emotions.
While his forced retirement was a unique circumstance, Linton comes off as knowledgeable on the subject. He recognises the importance of staying level-headed and having a clear mind.
Linton is passionate how pressure affects footballers, particularly when he draws upon his experience in the YTS programme.
“When you are playing well, the confidence takes care of itself. But when you are going through bad periods, and if you are not resilient or not that confident, you then suffer. That is where things can go astray.”
“I think with that pressure when you are 18 or 19 years of age when you go out and don’t prove yourself, you are out. That is a lot to deal with, especially when you are so young.”
“One of my friends had a coach come up to him. He said they are judging him on this game. For this one lad, it came down to one game. He froze. He went out and didn’t play as well as he could have done. He couldn’t deal with the pressure they just unloaded onto him.”
“Football is a pressurised game, a pressurised sport. When you go out onto that field in front of 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 or 50,000, there is no place to hide. If you cannot deal with it at a young age, or scrape by somehow, eventually when you get on the pitch and you don’t have the mentality to deal with it, you are going to suffer.”
“There is not a worse feeling. Mentally, you start struggling; you go into yourself; you start panicking; you make rash decisions, and you hear the supporters. All of a sudden you implode. If you can’t perform when it matters, unfortunately, you are not going to be good enough.”
“I have heard stories when people come up to me. [They said] ‘I got an injury, or I got diverted or I met a girl…’. They are excuses.”
“Quite a few have opportunities through these academies and apprenticeships to be a professional. It is hard, even when you get to that point, to actually get in there. The hardest bit is staying in it.”
Linton learnt this at the end of his two-year YTS programme in a surprising circumstance.
“At the presentation I got Player of the Year. That year Gary Mills got Player of the Year for the first team. I went to the toilet and Gary Mills was in there at the same time. I was sky-high. I was the best player in my second year, and I have a pro-contract. Things couldn’t get better.”
“He turned around and told me it is only going to get harder from here. He brought me back down to Earth with a bang. I never forgot that because he was right. You got there now, but you have to stay there.”
Des Linton never disregarded Mills’ advice. It was foundational to him breaking into the starting eleven in October 1993. A couple of months later, the Hatters began their famous run to reach the 1994 FA Cup semi-final.
Luton defeated Southend United and Andy Cole’s Newcastle United, overcame a volatile Cardiff City atmosphere, and shocked West Ham United in the quarterfinals. Their extraordinary path led to a tough fixture against Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea at Wembley. The semi-final proved to be one step too far.
Hoddle’s Chelsea unexpectedly put six-foot three-inch striker Tony Cascarino on six-foot Trevor Peake and nullified Luton’s right side. “It was just diagonal balls they played across,” Linton remembers. “Cascarino was heading them down for Peacock to run through. They did that twice.”
A point of potential influence Linton draws upon for their 2-0 loss was the old Wembley experience. Players could easily get emotionally caught up in the grandiose event. The stadium’s legendary originality and tradition made it the hallmark of English football.
“I just couldn’t sleep. Even when you have turned the TV off, your brain is buzzing. You’re going through scenarios. You are thinking about too many things, not just the game: the drive down, the tunnel, the supporters.”
“The whole thing was what you would imagine. It was just amazing. The support was all there. You walk into the Wembley changing room and you think about the players that have been here.”
“On the day, I thought I dealt with it quite well. The goalkeeper Juergen Sommer was American. He was taking pictures, but his hands were shaking like hell. That is how bad it can get.”
“I honestly believe, if it were at a neutral ground, we would have beat them. It’s not that we had an off day, but we all didn’t perform as we were. More of their players had been in that situation more than us and dealt with it emotionally better than we did. Through that, they played better.”
“It was a big day. I am thankful I was there to be part of it.”
The M1 Derby
You need to travel back to the 19th century to visualise Luton’s and Watford’s earliest teams and media outlets sowing the seeds to an intense rivalry.
Around a century later, Des Linton found himself preparing for the next chapter against Watford. A new signing was on the verge of making their derby debut. Linton turned to him and asked how he was feeling. “It isn’t my derby,” the player replied.
“You take things like that,” Linton says of the account. “It was more of a local thing. It didn’t affect me because it was another game. It affected the town because it was Watford.”
Because of Linton’s Aston Villa background, the derby’s effect did not impact him as much as others. Remaining psychologically stable likely contributed to Linton’s unbeaten record against Watford.
“You are footballers, but it is a job. You have to approach your job in a certain way, in a certain manner, and do the best you can. It is just you trying to do what you do every week. You try to play to your maximum.”
“If you get too pumped up, you cannot operate. I never got sent off in my entire career. I used to look at people that did and question why they were getting so angry. Why get so pumped up? To me, that’s an emotion they cannot control. Maybe the pressure got to them and it came out in a tackle, or that moment of madness.”
“I tried to keep things as practical as possible. It was my mechanism. If I approached things in a calm and collected way, then I play that way. If I am too pumped up or too emotional, then that will take over. That might affect my game. It is like an armour. You cannot let things bother you.”
Lessons from football
Despite the sudden end, Des Linton has a fair number of heartening memories to take pride in. He progressed through the YTS – a programme that only a minority of hopefuls managed to get through – had an underdogs FA Cup run and Wembley experience, learnt from Ricky Hill and left Luton as undefeated in the numerous M1 Derby’s during the early-to-mid 1990s.
Likewise, there is one other stark moment which sticks out to him. During his loan to Swindon there was a figure who happened to be there at the same time. It was former Villa midfielder, and his childhood hero, Mark Walters.
“I am in the same team as Mark Walters,” Linton remembers feeling stunned. “Even that part of you doesn’t change. You have your heroes and at some point, you would be lucky enough to play with them. You’ll pinch yourself.”
These moments act as solace to Linton now the wounds of early retirement have been healed. It has also gifted him the opportunity to clearly reflex upon his career and translate what he has learnt into his coaching and family life.
“Positive reinforcement,” he says naturally. “I think about my football career at times if I had a bit more of that. I had some but I still didn’t look at myself looking back as high as I should have done.”
“Before I went to Leicester, my Sunday League team won everything. We were really good. Someone asked me where I come in the rankings. I said about sixth. If I was the sixth-best player, why was I the only one to sign pro? It is me not believing enough in myself in the early part.”
“I’m not saying things would have been ultra-different but then again, they might. Those games where I was doubting myself might not have happened. I try to teach my kids this.”